Hardware Today: Apple Xserve, In Industrial Color

By Drew Robb (Send Email)
Posted Dec 11, 2006

There are hundreds of stock image and photographic post-production service providers around the world. To separate itself from the pack, New York City based Industrial Color married industry savvy with the latest technology.

There are hundreds of stock image and photographic post-production service providers around the world. To stand out from the pack, Industrial Color married industry savvy with technology in the form of the Apple Xserve.

With its Apple Xserve and Apple Xsan backbone from Apple Computer, the firm has virtually eliminated data corruption, increased its backup speed three-fold and expanded its backup capacity from 50 TB to more than 1 PB.

"Apple is the best in our industry and will always be with us," says Christopher Mainor, IT director at Industrial Color. "We store our images on an Apple platform and use it to host our creative applications."

Because of its ability to harness technology, Industrial Color is now the world's largest digital capture and post-production firm. It is headquartered in New York City, with additional offices in Brooklyn and Miami. Professional photographers, designers and producers around the globe seek Industrial Color's photo-shoot, processing, retouching, editing, distribution and backup services.

"We upload new photos to our digital catalog for processing and editing so there is no longer any need to FedEx copies back and forth," says Mainor. "A creative director in Paris can see pictures shot in L.A. in real time, request touch ups and select the best shots."

It all starts with a system the company named DC7 that captures photos on site. It is a composite of an Xserve server and two Power Mac G5s. Its capturing module is mobile and can be pushed around the set where needed. The DC7 is wired directly to the camera, so shots are stored as soon as they are taken. Another stationary module (also built from 1 Xserve and 2 G5s) takes care of preliminary processing and allows the photographer and creative director to make corrections onsite. Copies are made inside each DC7 module to protect against failure or corruption before an FTP session is started. Data is then transported, via FTP, to an Xserve at the main office where it is synced with a storage area network (SAN) that runs on an Apple Xsan. Retouchers access the photos residing on the Xsan to make the required changes. Every version is saved on the Xsan and retrievable at any time. In addition, each revision is backed up daily.

"We have a total of 21 Xserves that range in function from an FTP server to a metadata controller for Xsan," says Mainor. "We also have Xserves performing functions in remote offices like file servers and back up workstations."

Industrial Color's Xsan is built on the foundation of two Apple Xserve RAID boxes. These basically constitute a dual metadata controller with a NAS head for end user access. The SAN holds 42 TB of digital images.

"Xsan is quite complex, but it is a very robust system," says Mainor.

Windows, Too

Although Industrial Color's creative personnel have a preference for all things Apple, the firm has a significant amount of Windows-based gear, too. Windows 2003 Enterprise servers, for example, host a system vital to Industrial Color operations known as Global Edit. This is a digital asset management tool that enables clients to view and edit their shoots from any internet connection.

"Global Edit lets us take the old business model of stock image houses to another level," said Mainor. "Customers can edit shots and view every change before deciding what to order or print."

A single shoot, for example, typically contains 1,500 pictures, each in the 8 MB to 10 MB range. This initial TIF image is backed up as soon as it is received. It is then converted to high- and low-resolution JPEG graphics. Retouchers work with a 5 MB JPEG of the shot, which might go through another 10 to 20 versions before the client is satisfied.

"Instead of just viewing and ordering images, customers have the option of changing the color of the item, adding details such as a logo, or zooming in on a specific highlight," says Mainor.

Currently, every change is backed up and available to view instantly. Prior to implementing Global Edit, that wasn't the case. Previously, the company used two stand-alone HP Ultrium LTO-3 tape drives in conjunction with EMC Retrospect backup software. But as the volume of photos grew, this system became inadequate.

"To backup all of our data adequately it would have taken one employee all day plucking and chucking tapes," said Mainor. "As we couldn't afford to do that, we had to be very selective about what we backed up."

He implemented NetVault backup software from BakBone Software and a Quantum PX720 enterprise tape library from Quantum to store every image and revision made along the way. This tape library includes five LTO-3 Fibre Channel (FC) drives and 170 LT0-3 cartridges. A whopping 48TB is stored on a total of 170 tapes. The storage environment is rounded out with a Network Appliance disk array and a storage cluster from Isilon Systems.

"Instead of having someone babysit our old drives for 36-straight hours, I only need to check on the Quantum PX720 for a few minutes a day," says Mainor. "By using FC rather than parallel SCSI, we have increased backup speed by at least three times."

Apple to Windows

As mentioned earlier, Industrial Color stores its digital images on an Apple platform. However, its backup, Web and administrative applications use Windows. These systems cannot exist as separate islands. When clients access Global Edit, for example, they click on the shots they wish to see in more detail. These images are retrieved from Xsan as low-resolution JPEGs and presented via Windows.

Mainor notes, however, that IT staff sometimes lost several hours a week restarting servers and debuging data streaming between Apple and Windows. Sometimes pictures would come up corrupted or not be available to view.

"Some uploads would be successful and others not," says Mainor. "At the same time, our customers were held up due to intermittent service."

To resolve this challenge, the company adopted Quantum StorNext FX. It is designed to enable applications running to share information with Apple Xsan. The StorNext software is loaded on the Windows servers. When customers access images over the Web, they can now see what is on file instantly. Mainor says StorNext also facilitates smoother backups.

"It acts as our data movement bridge between Apple and Windows, and it does a much better job of allowing data sharing than native software," he says.

New Data Center

Industrial Color is currently moving into a new data center which houses its latest service offering. Known as Global Vault, it is a more robust digital asset management system with far greater data retention capabilities than Global Edit. It provides customers with instant access to any image from campaigns up to one year old. For the first month, data is housed on disk. After 30 days, everything is moved to the Quantum PX720. Industrial Color is about to add two more PX720s and build out its total storage capacity to about 1PB by the end of next year.

"With the new data center we planned for the expansion of both types of systems, Windows and Apple," says Mainor.

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